Editor’s note: Sara Holdren, New York and Vulture’s regular theater critic, is on vacation.
“I am not what I am.” This almost-koan, spoken by Iago, comes a mere 64 lines into Othello. More than three hours later, with the wreckage of his life all around him, Othello calls himself “he that was Othello.” In between, as Iago manipulates and deceives Othello into believing his wife has cuckolded him with his lieutenant Cassio and must die for it, Shakespeare suggests again and again that there is no such thing as a fixed identity. The characters in Othello live and die by their reputations, which Cassio calls “the immortal part of myself” without which “what remains is bestial.” But reputations, of course, can change. Iago knows this, and preys upon the unknowability of the other, and, ultimately, of the self. That guy everyone thinks is so honest? Turns out he’s a serial liar. The dashing gentleman you’ve just made your right-hand man? He’s a drunk and a fool. The upright, loyal woman you love? Well, she lied to her father when she was dating you, so how can you trust her? If nothing around you is reliable, how can you trust yourself?
In Othello, everything becomes increasingly unstable. Iago attacks the audience’s certainties around motivation, evidence, the reliability of the senses, and even language. This exploration of the yawning chasm between what we assume and what might actually be is what makes Othello both one of the great works of Western literature, and, despite its low body count, Shakespeare’s most terrifying play.
Yet this aspect of its greatness is nearly impossible to stage effectively. Actors cannot play “being a mystery,” and a director’s entire job is to make interpretational choices. Perhaps this is why director Ruben Santiago-Hudson and the cast of his quite fine, if quite conservative, production of Othello for Shakespeare in the Park have largely chosen to sidestep these mysteries, giving us a satisfying and somewhat safe domestic tragedy rather than an epistemological nightmare.
If what you want from your Shakespeare is a firm directorial hand that tugs on unexpected threads to reveal new angles into the text that you’d never seen before, this is not the Othello for you. Unlike Sam Gold’s starry and heavily conceptualized Othello at New York Theater Workshop in 2016 — or Oskar Eustis’s staging of Julius Caesar, which caused such a kerfuffle in the press last summer — there are very few overt directorial gestures or explicit politics to be found in this production. There’s a concrete practicality to nearly every choice, with the result that there’s little here to surprise you, but a lot to keep you entertained.
Thus, we get an Othello in period dress (the richly detailed Jacobean costumes are by Toni-Leslie James) with a nearly bare stage (designed by Jessica Paz), save for two rows of arches, which can be manipulated by the company to give some sense of motion. There are sword duels with actual swords, and Santiago-Hudson’s staging is clean and elegant, particularly in its use of the Delacorte’s depth.
Perhaps most importantly, many roles in Othello are played by actors of color, including the Duke of Venice (Peter Jay Fernandez), Cassio (Babak Tafti), Cassio’s mistress Bianca (Flor De Liz Perez), and Desdemona’s suitor Roderigo (Motell Foster), deemphasizing the play’s themes of racism and otherness. Santiago-Hudson has said in interviews that he thinks of Othello primarily as a play about love, and he has crafted a tragedy of intimacy, a powerful examination of the loss of boundaries that can be a part of love’s power, and how this can lead swiftly to a kind of madness. Not for nothing does Othello kill Desdemona in this version by hoisting her in an airborne embrace and then crushing her diaphragm until she asphyxiates.
The semi-permeable membrane between love and madness also answers rather neatly one of the play’s major questions: Why Othello turns on his wife so swiftly, moving from Iago’s first accusation to murdering her in roughly 36 hours. As played by Chukwudi Iwuji, this compressed timeline results from Othello tumbling into insanity, a journey charted in his body. When Iwuji first appears he struts with confidence, prowling the stage with the lithe grace of a young Mick Jagger. Even when threatened, he smiles with bemusement, seemingly invulnerable. As his suspicions grow he doubles over as if wracked with pain, and rarely stands up straight in the play again. But this shift in the character occurs offstage, during a break of some 40 lines, and is so severe it leaves little room for nuance in Iwuji’s performance over the second half of the play.
Othello’s other major question, of course, is why Iago decides to destroy Othello in the first place. Here, the production’s resolute practically bares wonderful fruit in Corey Stoll’s performance as Iago. The character often comes burdened with Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s idea that Iago’s speeches to the audience are the “motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity,” that Iago is essentially a psychopath and exercising power is his true goal. Stoll instead takes Iago’s justifications seriously. In his remarkable performance, Iago is a disgruntled middle-aged white man, furious at being passed over for promotion by his black boss, and suspicious that that same boss has slept with his wife. This choice opens up both inventive line readings and a rich vein of humanity in the character, without making him any less monstrous or more sympathetic. Stoll’s Iago is a revelation. He cannot be written off as a demon, you must instead reckon with the evil in him because it finds a distant echo in the petty jealousies of your own heart. He’s also quite funny, without leaning on any of the cheap indications that actors of Shakespeare sometimes deploy to get laughs.
As Desdemona, Othello’s doomed wife, Heather Lind finds both the childlike naïveté and playful sexuality of the character (full disclosure: we’ve worked together in the past). Her Desdemona is a teenager just starting to come into her own as an adult, able to figure out how to escape her father’s house and elope with the man she loves, but outmatched by the forcefulness of his jealousy and Iago’s wit. Alison Wright, best known as Martha from The Americans, so fully inhabits Emilia that this often-forgotten character takes over Othello’s finale, becoming something akin to the voice of the play itself. That voice wryly jokes to Desdemona that men “are all but stomachs,” and women “all but food / To eat us hungerly, and when they are full / They belch us.” It turns out to be a warning, of course. In this production, Othello’s hunger for Desdemona is bottomless, and it’s this hunger, rather than his outsider status, or toxic masculinity, or the mystery of the human condition, that will cost them both their lives. That makes this version of Othello down to earth but, thanks to the skill of all involved, hardly earthbound.
Othello is at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through June 24.